Rules to stop UK's aid budget being spent on 'military purposes' could be scrapped, Downing Street hints

No 10 refuses to back internationally-agreed guidance on how aid should be spent - after claim of planned focus on cyberweapons and AI-enabled drones

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
@Rob_Merrick
Wednesday 02 September 2020 15:38
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Strict rules to prevent the UK's foreign aid budget being spent on “military purposes” could be ripped up, Downing Street has suggested.

Boris Johnson’s spokesman refused to commit him to internationally-agreed guidance on how aid should be spent – as the abolition of the department for international development (Dfid) triggered suspicions.

No 10 was asked to rule out changing the global definition of aid, after a report that the chancellor wants cash diverted to items such as new cyberweapons and AI-enabled drones.

But the spokesman declined to do so, instead pointing to the Conservative election manifesto, which merely pledges to “do more to help countries receiving aid become self-sufficient”, saying: “Nothing more to add.”

Earlier, Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, also failed to stamp on suggestions of a controversial rule-easing, hinting at changes in this autumn’s spending review.

Asked about a switch from poverty-fighting to boosting intelligence and defence capabilities, he said: “There is loads of tittle tattle, rather colourful, in the media and I am not going to prejudice the comprehensive spending review.”

Rishi Sunak is pushing for new spending on develop cutting-edge military technologies to come from the aid budget, according to the report in The Times.

An overhaul of foreign, defence and security policy is due to conclude in November, but is threatened by a multi-billion-pound deficit in the Ministry of Defence's funding.

“The chancellor has been clear that, if the review isn't cost-neutral, it is only right that any extra spending comes out of the 0.7 per cent,” a Whitehall source told the paper.

In the Commons, Andrew Mitchell, the former Tory international development secretary, warned a commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of national income on aid was “inextricably linked to the rules”.

“We should not, as a country or a government, seek to balance the books on the backs of the poorest women and children in the world,” he told Mr Raab.

The rules, set down by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), say that funding – to qualify as aid – must “promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries”.

The OECD website says allocations “for military purposes are excluded”, also ruling out “military aid and promotion of donor’s security interests”.

It is believed that even redefining internationally-agreed definitions of aid spending would require changes to the law enshrining the 0.7 per cent pledge – and would, therefore, trigger a huge row.

Nevertheless, making a Commons statement, Mr Raab again hinted at changes, while agreeing international rules were “important”.

“There's plenty of scope for us to make sure – and it is absolutely right to make sure –that we get maximum value for British taxpayers’ money, but also that we're driving a foreign policy, yes, that deals with some of the global challenges,” he told MPs.

Meanwhile, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the international development secretary, was sacked from the government altogether with the death of Dfid – failing to land a junior ministerial post in the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

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